The Education of an Ambivalent Feminist
June 29, 2018
Jun 29, 2018
18 Min read time
Tara Westover's best-selling memoir may reveal more about the place of feminism in contemporary U.S. life than any book in recent memory.
Educated: A Memoir
Random House, $28.00 (cloth)
Since Educated debuted at number three on the New York Times best seller list in February, Tara Westover has been catapulted to that rare sort of literary celebrity that seems to burst from nowhere and quickly saturates the culture. People are captivated by her journey from youngest child in a radical Mormon family of home-schooling, anti-government survivalists in southeastern Idaho to Brigham Young University at seventeen and then to Cambridge University, a Harvard fellowship, and PhD in History by the time she was twenty-seven-years old.
Published almost four years to the day since her dissertation’s approval, Westover’s memoir rings with the foundational U.S. stories of exceptionalism, rugged individualism, organic intellect, and pure hustle from Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, and Horatio Alger to more recent iterations such as Hamilton: The Musical and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016). (That Westover is the only woman among these figures is notable; that she is white like everyone but the actors playing Alexander Hamilton is business as usual.)
Educated may reveal more about the place of feminism in contemporary U.S. life than any book in recent memory.
Indeed, reviewers and interviewers have most commonly invoked Hillbilly Elegy when describing Educated, highlighting the authors’ shared tough but loving eye on poor white people, their values, and their problems outside the Northeast and coastal urban centers. As “native informants,” Vance and Westover appeal to a popular hunger for regional exotica and tales of weirdness, suffering, and violence lurking beneath the shine of “middle America.” They both temper the bleak with evidence of their individual overcoming through hard work and determination, thus leaving intact cherished beliefs in the American promise and democratic opportunity.
Like Hillbilly Elegy, Educated has found popularity that spans divides of politics, identity, and geography. And while Westover’s book shares none of Vance’s candidate-in-the-making policy vision or overt politicking, it has been embraced by the right, left, and center on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as an opportunity for casting new light on even deeper white reaches of Trump Country.
Westover makes no claim to providing these political and cultural insights, and her memoir’s narrative and voice actively work against it. But in her public appearances since, she seems most comfortable in the conservative social and political milieu of Vance—the milieu that celebrates individual choice and responsibility above all else.
She has insisted, for instance, that her memoir’s central takeaway on matters of schooling and education is that “you can teach yourself anything better than someone else can teach it to you.” Attributing the foundations for this belief to her anti-statist upbringing and parents’ rejection of public education for most of their children, Westover recently elaborated to Vanity Fair magazine, “we take people’s ability to self-teach away by creating this idea that someone else has to do this for you, that you have to take a course, you have to do it in some formal way. Any curriculum that you design for yourself is going to be better, even if it’s not the absolute perfect one.”
Similarly, the feminism Westover espouses is defined almost entirely as unqualified support for women’s “choices.” This includes her own choice not to identify with—or ever reference its existence in her memoir—the Mormon Feminist movement that began in the 1970s and has gained particular momentum (and censure from the church) in the last twenty years. Describing her inability to reconcile her womanhood and church doctrine, Westover quipped to The Guardian, “I tried to be a Mormon Feminist but that was exhausting.”
In the end, however, even if Westover and most of her fans don’t want to admit it, Educated may reveal more about the place of feminism in contemporary U.S. life than any book in recent memory.
Westover steps gingerly around the term ‘feminist,’ as has most of the coverage surrounding the book.
It is simultaneously the heroic and painful narrative of a woman being cast out of her family and her Mormon faith for rejecting the place both institutions defined for her and for refusing to remain silent about the violent abuses that place allowed. It is the story of a woman who stands alone and is unlike other women, including her own mother, sister, and sister-in-law who all choose to stand with the author’s abuser (an older brother), her father’s warped outlook and authority, and the church and communities faithful that support them.
Educated offers an indictment of patriarchy and the damage men do—and how both distort women’s and girls’ senses of themselves and the world. For Westover, the elite academic institutions she attended and her achievements there are not the main events of her memoir but the ambient conditions for her coming to awareness of patriarchy and what it means for her and her family, their faith, and her future. Education becomes a metaphor for consciousness, and Educated the story of how a woman woke cannot unlearn this knowledge, no matter how much she may wish to.
Yet Westover steps gingerly around the term “feminist,” as has most of the coverage surrounding the book. On both counts, Westover is representative of the dominant ethos of women’s equality in the contemporary United States where the real political and material benefits gained through feminist activism, theorizing, and educational work over time are often taken for granted while the category “feminist” is reviled, ridiculed, or drained of all complexity.
In the late 1960s, the Women’s Liberation Movement transformed feminism with the radical claim that “the personal is political.” The phrase explained how the seemingly mundane experiences of women, their daily indignities and private frustrations, were not individual or just “personal problems” but the systemic outcomes of patriarchy.
Subsequently spun through pervasive neoliberal rhetorics of privatization and the liberty of consumption in a free market, this radical feminist claim has been turned upside down, grotesquely reanimated as a celebration of women’s personal choices and individual gains as political acts in themselves. This is where Tara Westover’s Educated enters the picture.
The book is divided into three parts: Westover’s childhood and teenaged years in Idaho, her time at BYU beginning when she was seventeen; and, finally, her move to Cambridge, England, for graduate school.
Tied to the progressive time of her formal education and increasing geographical distance from family in Idaho, the narrative within this structure is only thinly focused on academics and is more asynchronous and messy. Often horrific in its details, Westover’s stories dwell on bodily damage and pain—or the fear of it. One often wishes to look away from the litany of broken, burned, and concussed bodies.
The family avoided contact with the state, so the many accidents—in cars, on motorcycles, on wild horses, at construction sites, or in the family scrapyard—were treated by Westover’s mother, a midwife, with only herbal tinctures and essential oils. When the injured person was the mother herself, there was no treatment.
‘What was of worth was not me, but the veneer of constraints and observances that obscured me.’
Perhaps we are a bit disgusted with ourselves for being unable to look away, gorging on the horrific gore of children made to carve away the necrotic, burned flesh of a sibling or their father with no pain killers or antibiotics. In her event with Westover, fellow Vance confederate Amy Chua described a version of this feeling as a reader, and asked if all of it had made Tara stronger or better able to face challenges as an adult. “You’re certainly not an entitled snowflake,” Chua quipped, “Do you think it gave you resilience?”
This violent danger and its primary sources shifted for Westover with puberty. Bodies were still worrisome, at risk, unruly, and often disgusting. With gorgeous precision and economy, Westover describes teenage girlhood: “I was fifteen and I felt it, felt the race I was running with time. My body was changing, bloating, swelling, stretching, bulging. I wished it would stop, but it seemed like my body was no longer mine.”
This was when her older brother, then in his mid-twenties, turned his contempt for women toward her; motivated, Westover suggests, by his own sense of slipping ownership. “I saw you talking to Charles [a teenager from town],” he said one night driving Westover home. “You don’t want people thinking you’re that kind of girl.” The next day, after noticing her trying out makeup for the first time, he says, “I thought you were better. But you’re just like the rest.” He later calls her a “whore” for wearing lip gloss.
Her brother’s possessiveness and escalating degradations—mirrored in Westover’s description of his treatment of a girlfriend who is roughly her age—crackle with a growing frisson of sexual danger. A new kind of dread begins to fuel the memoir’s narrative momentum.
Worlds and themes collide shortly thereafter when Westover is woken up in the middle of the night by her brother choking her. He holds her off the floor by her neck, screaming, “Slut! Whore!” Her mother attempts to stop him, fearing that he is about to kill her. He loosens his grip, but taunts Westover as she gasps and weeps, “the bitch cries . . . because someone sees you for the slut you are?”
Westover’s mother tells her to leave in the car immediately, but her brother dangles the keys between his index finger and thumb. He then wrestles Westover to the ground wrenching her arm behind her back and bending her wrist to near breaking. “She’s not going anywhere until she admits she’s a whore,” he says.
Westover had resigned herself to the imminent snap of bone when something so unimaginable happens that she seems hardly able to believe it herself many years later. A different older brother, Tyler, who was the first of the Westover children to defy their father and leave for BYU, walks into the violent scene completely unexpected; he had not been home for years. He gives her his car keys and tells her to stay away for several hours.
When Westover returns home, her mother’s alone in the kitchen and acts as if nothing has happened. The abusive brother returns later, holding a gift of pearls as an apology, and explains how much he fears for her, that she’s losing herself. “You’re special, Tara,” he says, explaining that she always had been, but couldn’t stay that way on her current path.
This is a critical moment of revelation for Westover, that will become the start of her education. “Suddenly that worth felt conditional, like it could be taken or squandered,” she writes. “It was not inherent; it was bestowed. What was of worth was not me, but the veneer of constraints and observances that obscured me.”
When Tara announces to her parents that she wishes to go to college like Tyler and will begin studying—which means learning from scratch—for the ACT exam, her father is livid. That evening, he walks into her bedroom, a notable event in itself, Westover says, as he has not entered the space since she was a young child, to say that God is angry with her for wanting to go to college “to whore after man’s knowledge.” Even her desire for an education is spun through the threat of promiscuous sexuality and Westover’s apparent refusal to become the sort of young woman her father and brother wish her to be.
Westover describes her transition at seventeen to life in college and a large city as being just as difficult, unsettling, and terrifying as one might imagine. Any hope that her path might be smoothed by the fact that she was still in majority Mormon spaces is quickly dashed as the differences between her and other students only grow, not lessen, over time. No one was a Mormon the way she was—the way her father taught her to be—and she knew of no one confronting the same violence.
Throughout the second part of her memoir, Westover juxtaposes her time at home during every holiday, winter break, and summer with her discovery of the wider world and institutions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At home, she continued to face abuse at the hands of her brother while her father designed physical demands in an attempt to punish her for leaving. What little information Westover revealed about herself and her family at BYU raised concerns and prompted attempts at intervention from roommates, professors, and bishops (the equivalent of Protestant ministers or Catholic priests in the LDS hierarchy).
‘Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir,’ Westover writes. ‘I read only a few pages of each book before slamming it shut.’
But Westover’s description of one of the first of these attempts is almost as disturbing—and as revealing—as her accounts of domestic violence and torture. When Westover returned to school after her harrowing first summer home from college, she was still injured from an encounter with her brother. During her second Sunday at a new church, a man asked her to dinner, which she declined. A few days later a different man from the church asked her out.
“Again, I said no,” Westover writes. “I couldn’t say yes. I didn’t want either of them anywhere near me. Word reached the bishop that there was a woman in his flock who was set against marriage.”
She was summoned to the bishop’s office to discuss her “problem,” and he suggests that Westover embark on religious counseling so that one day she can enjoy an “eternal marriage to a righteous man.” By this he meant joining other women in a “plural marriage” with her husband in the afterlife, which has been doctrinally mandated for pious men to attain their highest order of enlightenment since 1890 when prophecy ended the earthly Mormon practice of polygamy.
Westover is frank about having left the Mormon church and no longer believing. Many of her reasons, including resistance to eternal or “celestial marriage” and the domesticity and obedience in life needed to secure that salvation, are detailed in her book; and nearly all revolve around her early feelings of inadequacy and inability to be properly a woman. “How could I be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things,” she asks—a question that would later become her educated refusal to be that woman.
It is perhaps not surprising that Westover had no experience beyond negative associations with feminism in or out of her classrooms at BYU. The last part of her memoir, which opens with her arrival at Cambridge for graduate school, starts with her first conversation with a pair of self-proclaimed feminists. Their intelligence, warm likability, and easy identifications with feminism drive Westover to the library where she checks out every foundational text of the “Second Wave” in the United States that she can get her hands on.
“Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir,” she writes. “I read only a few pages of each book before slamming it shut.” It was all too much, Westover says, without offering more by way of explanation. She simply could find no way into those books or ideas.
For Mill, women’s freedom of choice, no matter how constrained or what the outcome, is the essence of their liberty. The argument rings today with terrible familiarity.
So Westover tries a different approach, skipping over U.S. feminists and key twentieth-century texts altogether: “I exchanged the books of the second wave for those that preceded the first—Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.”
As a scholar of the nineteenth century, Westover is most comfortable with that era's brand of feminism. John Stuart Mill resonated most for her and would go on to be significant to Westover’s dissertation research. Her affinity for the nineteenth-century English philosopher winds a subtle path through her memoir.
Like Wollstonecraft before him (see: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1792), Mill argues that the status of women does not derive from their natures, but rather they must be trained—educated—to their inferiority and dependence. His Subjection of Women (1869) called for the reform of marriage and divorce alongside suffrage and formal education for women, and prompted a short correspondence with U.S. feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Indeed, despite his position in Westover’s chronology, Mill was very much a part of the “First Wave.”
Mill’s feminist theory was outlined most explicitly in The Subjection of Women, but he had been making similar arguments for years, including in On Liberty (1859) where his discussion of the inherent inequalities of marriage comes in the context of a tempered defense of Mormon polygamy. Mill saw the calls in the U.S. for the federal government “to send an expedition” against the Mormons in the Utah Territory “and compel them by force to conform to the opinions of other people” as a clear affront to the principles of liberty and freedom to choose one’s religion.
With characteristic adherence to white supremacy and hierarchies of empire, he notes that the aspect of Mormonism “which is the chief provocative” breaking “through the ordinary restraints of religious tolerance, is its sanction of polygamy; which, though permitted to Mahomedans, and Hindoos, and Chinese, seems to excite unquenchable animosity when practised by persons who speak English, and profess to be a kind of Christians.”
Westover’s education rejects analyzing the collective conditions of women, their diversity and intersectional oppressions across time and global geographies.
But polygamy presents a contradiction for Mill’s argument on behalf of individual liberty in that for Mormon women, he writes, “it is a direct infraction of that principle” and a “riveting of the chains of the one half of the community.” This would seem to engage his corollary harm principle holding that the only rightful exercise of power against another’s will is to prevent harm to others.
Mill resolves this contradiction by arguing, “it must be remembered that this relation is as much voluntary on the part of the women concerned in it, and who may be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the marriage institution.”
The women’s freedom of choice, Mill concludes, no matter how constrained or what the outcome, is the essence of their liberty and must not be fettered by state intervention. The argument rings today with terrible familiarity.
So much must feel familiar in Mill for Westover. His last work published posthumously in 1873 was an Autobiography detailing Mill’s intensive education from the age of three at the hand of his father, James Mill, and the utilitarian philosopher and English reformer Jeremy Bentham (perhaps most widely recognized today as the progenitor of the Panopticon).
Raised as an experiment in crafting an ideal Enlightenment subject of pure reason and known by his twenties as a “manufactured man,” Mill sunk into deep melancholy, which he described as a “crisis in my mental history.” He surpassed it by educating himself in the art and poetry of the Early Romantics and thus becoming his own man.
In the process of becoming her own woman, Westover finds comfort in the individual freedoms of Classical Liberalism and the Enlightenment. But these freedoms, which are presented and consumed as distant from history and context, are sheared of their foundations in empire, slavery, biological determinism, and the violent economies of extraction.
Westover’s arguments intersect easily with the conservative politics of personal responsibility and equality of opportunity—not outcomes.
Like everything else in her memoir, Westover’s education rejects analyzing the collective conditions of women, their diversity and intersectional oppressions across time and global geographies, activism and political change, or social justice. She sees little beyond her own experience, knowledge, and the freedom of her choices—sheared as they are of their foundations in the abiding privileges of her whiteness and Americanness and in the very same feminist texts and activism she describes rejecting. This perspective is utterly consistent with late capitalism’s apotheosis of individual choice as human liberty realized.
In the end, even though she is so persistently linked to Vance, Westover shares much more with Gretchen Carlson, the former Miss America who made her career at Fox News as a self-proclaimed culture warrior denouncing feminists at every opportunity.
Carlson found herself in need and awkward alliance with such feminists in 2016 when she left Fox and sued the news organization’s late chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. Today, she is an advocate for raising women’s awareness of their legal rights in the workplace and is the first Miss America to lead the pageant organization, a position for which she was tapped after it was revealed that the all-male leadership consistently objectified and degraded contestants in emails. In early June, the Miss America Pageant announced that it would no longer feature its iconic swimsuit competition.
Similar to Carlson’s unlikely narrative arc, which recently saw her paired in the New York Times with feminist legal icon, Catherine MacKinnon, Westover has quite a bit to show readers about the state of feminism in the United States and the conditions that saw straight, white women vote in staggering numbers for the Republican ticket’s different poles of the same misogyny: one who brags of grabbing “by the pussy,” with no invitation and no censure, women who are strangers to him, and the other who, out of religious piety, refuses to be alone with any woman he is not related to.
Indeed, Westover’s arguments about self-construction through knowledge intersect easily with the politics of personal responsibility and equality of opportunity—not outcomes—espoused by Vance, Chua, and Fox News.
But Westover is clearly still on a journey—both personal and educational. There is nothing in her memoir that suggests Westover ever returned to the texts of twentieth-century feminism or ventured into the twenty-first century. But perhaps one day she will.
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June 29, 2018
18 Min read time